Nobody Gets Off the Bus:
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I'd like to have a few minutes with the recruiter who got me into this mess. I'd like to meet him somewhere. He could pick the spot, maybe the Officer's Club where he'd feel safe. I just want him to tell me again, to my face, how much I'll enjoy the United States Navy. My recruiter told me that and he did it without even cracking a smile. He sat right there in his goddamn khaki uniform with all those pleats and flaps and brass buttons and about six too many pockets and gave me his best speech: "You'll be heading off to Vietnam, and it won't be a pretty thing," etc. & etc. "But you'll see plenty of action and I guarantee you'll come back a hero with a chest full of medals. Not because I said so. No! You'll come home a hero because you fought as a member of the most powerful navy in the world. And believe me, once you're a sailor, you're always a sailor, and you can be proud of that," etc. & etc. "You can take a sailor out of the navy but you can never take the navy out of a sailor," etc. & etc.
Lies, all lies. But I bought it lock, stock and barrel. I yanked the pen out of his hand and said, "Yes, sir! Where do I sign?" because I was nineteen and not overburdened with brains. Because I was revved to race, poured full of the juice of youth. Because I was the kid with so much energy I had to almost jog in place. If I didn't, everything in me would get lockjaw. I bought that recruiter's bullshit, all right. And what did it get me? Three years hard time. Three mind-blowing, killingly, love-deadeningly boring years. I hope that son-of-a-bitch recruiter dies of intestinal cancer in a part of the world where morphine has yet to be discovered.
I'd like to talk to my boot camp company commander, too. Petty Officer 1st class Haywood was his name. Dick Haywood. The most coldhearted, sadistic bastard this side of Hell. If you poured boiling water down the guy's throat, he would have peed ice cubes. Haywood's favorite pastime was torturing recruits. He pushed us, kicked us and cursed us out in the vilest language. He made our lives a living hell.
Reveille at dawn. "You maggots got five seconds to be lined up outside!"
Formation, inspection. Three solid hours of marching in 90 degree San Diego heat while he sat on his ass in the shade and shouted through a bullhorn. "Move it! Move it! Move it! Agility! Hostility! Keep those lines straight! Make it hurt!" It hurt all right. It was the worst kind of hurt you can imagine. The kind of hurt that comes to visit and rearranges the spiritual furniture.
There were jumping jacks. We ran and climbed ropes. We learned to say "Yes sir!", "No sir!" and little else. Push-ups and sit-ups and hot afternoons on the obstacle course. No use complaining; the penalty for that was more pain. There was tear gas, too, I still remember the sting. And I'll never forget the time Haywood caught Tony Miller writing a letter home to his girl when he was supposed to be taking notes on seamanship. He snatched the letter out of Miller's hands and read it aloud to the company.
"My darling Jill," he began, his voice laden with sarcasm. Then he went into the body of the letter, reading until he worked himself into a state of outrage. It was a letter to a young snatch he said at the end, and what was he doing writing to a young snatch when what really at issue, what really mattered, what was of the utmost importance was not young snatch but rather the proper way to handle lines and transfer fuel from one ship to another.
Another time he caught Freddy Halverson, a college kid from Des Moines, reading, of all things, Plato's Republic. "A college boy, huh? Haywood said. "You one of those dumb-minded social undesirables, boy? You eyefucking me, sailor? Don't. I don't want you quoting the pisscutting Republic in my navy. Your boots are filthy. There will be an inspection, and if you don't come up with some inspection-worthy boots in chop-chop time, your college ass won't be worth a roach's tit. You got that? I don't give a damn how smart you are. You're a recruit in the United States Navy now, and if I say jump, you jump. Understand? Oh, you're gonna get an education, Halverson. I'll make sure of that. I'm going to bust your ass while you're under my command. I'm gonna ride you every step of the way."
Poor Freddy. He was emotional, intellectual. There was no place in Haywood's navy for anyone like that. Freddy would never make it through boot camp. Many of us wouldn't make it. And those of us who did were scared shitless. Frightened out of our wits. As if the possibility of going to Vietnam was nothing compared to the certainty of spending another day under the ruthless command of Dick Haywood. I hope there's a special dung heap in the low-rent section of hell for that worthless bastard.
That brings to mind another guy I'd love to get within choking distance of: Chief Blackwell. That man is on my shit list, too. Blackwell was the son-of-a-bitch who put me down in the hole. That's what we call the boiler room on this barge: "the hole", with varying foul modifiers. A few hours down there and you'd understand why. The hole is a nightmare of valves, switches, pipes and machinery. It's noisy down there. And hot. Two 1200 pound boilers can churn out a godawful lot of heat. Working in the hole is the worst job imaginable. It's the equivalent of stoking the fires of hell, only hotter.
When I put in a request chit for a different duty assignment--cook, gunners mate, postal clerk, anything else--Chief Blackwell just laughed. "What's wrong?" he said. "You too fucking good for the hole? We got men on this ship who've been boiler tenders for twenty years. They like it."
"They like it?" I said.
"You bet they do," he said, in his flat-as-the-floorboards voice. "And you'd better learn to like it, too, because it's gonna be your home for the next three years."
No slant-eyed, slope-headed, tree-climbing, shit-eating little son-of-a-bitch with infrared telescopic sight is going to blow me away. No way. No rocket is going to land on my head because some cherry was playing with the radio. Thanks to Chief Blackwell, I'll probably die of boredom or heat-exhaustion in a place that has a 24-hour climate like the inside of a locked van stalled in Death Valley at noon. I tell you, I'd like to see Blackwell dipped in shit, circumcised with a firecracker, and burned at the stake to the sounds of Hendrix's Foxy Lady.
I'd like to go about ten rounds with petty officer 1st class Hanson, too. I really would. He's the criminally insane psychotic head case in charge of the boiler room. Hanson's a real bastard. He's the kind of sicko who would bite off his sleeping mother's toe. He would throw a rattlesnake into a baby's carriage. He'd murder a virgin with a swan. Hanson missed his calling. He could have been a rape and pillage specialist in the armies of Genghis Khan. Loyalty is very important to Hanson. He judges us by our loyalty, our ability to suck up to him. There are about five sycophants who do most of the sucking. It's enough to make you sick. But not half as sick as when Hanson breaks out the grease gun for a FNG.
A Fucking New Guy is what Hanson calls the guys right out of boot camp. Either that or fresh meat. It's Hanson's self-appointed duty to indoctrinate every FNG into the boiler room by jamming the nozzle of a grease gun up his ass and pumping him full of #3 graphite grease. Greasing parties. That's what they're called. There are others who help out--the brown-nosers--but it's always Hanson who works the grease gun. He loves it, especially when the FNG's screams. He gets off on it. That's how perverted he is.
The first time I witnessed a greasing party, I felt a sickness inside of me. Total disease. I tried to call it unreal. But it resisted the word. So I cast around for anything to call it: unspeakable, grotesque, mind-blowing, but there was nothing appropriate except perhaps insane. Totally insane. Hanson is one twisted psychotic, all right, and I'd have no compunction whatsoever about picking up a 24" pipe wrench and braining him with one savage, cathartic swipe.
I'd like to have a few words with that alcoholic shipyard inspector who checked out #2 boiler just before we pulled out for Nam because a part of me, a lot of me, in fact, is still grieving. The shithead boiler inspector was drunk that day. So drunk he could barely make it down into the boiler room. When he did, he threw up in the bilges, signed the job completion form and climbed back up the ladder. It's because of that inspector that Billy Adams is dead. Billy was standing in front of #2 boiler the night it blew a tube. He was killed instantly. The tube cut loose just before watch change. I was up on the 02 level at the time. I'll never forget the look on Billy's face when it exploded. I try, but I can't forget.
There was a low hollow bang. I had just enough time to look down and see 1200 pounds of superheated steam flash right in Billy's face. It ripped all the meat off, and for an instant I could see the white bone and the red flesh of muscle tissue. All this in a microsecond. Then I was knocked back against the bilge pump and the boiler room filled with steam. There were bells, sirens, screams, sobs--a hundred horrible sounds at once. Someone shouting orders that you'd have to put your ear to their mouth to hear.
I'm not ashamed to say that I panicked. I felt my way over to the ladder and climbed out of there as fast as I could. Me and a few other survivors. When the steam cleared Billy was lying on the deckplates, fried to a crisp. He was like the rest of us--eighteen, nineteen years old. He loved baseball and hamburgers and cherry Cokes. And now he's dead. I wouldn't mind seeing that low-life boozed-out inspector have a bone-splintering head-on automobile crash and have the thrill of being the only person available to summon aid.
I'd like have about five minutes with that prostitute from Singapore. The stripper. The girl from the red-light district with the dimpled bellybutton and the smooth thighs that I fell in love with. The one I met when I was half-drunk.
"Hey sailor," she said, "you party?"
"Yea, I party," I told her. "How much?"
"Twenty dollah. Me love you long time."
"Twenty dollah too much," I said.
"Me sucky-sucky. Love you too much," she said.
"Ten dollah is all my mom allows me to spend."
"Ok. Ten dollah."
"What does ten dollah get me?"
"Everything. Fucky-sucky. Whatever you want," she said, and I was sucked, once, twice, thrice. She sucked with a cigarette in her mouth, glued to her lip corner, and the ash fell on my cock and I didn't care. I was too drunk to care. She held my dick for me while I took a leak, and that was free, a bonus to a good customer. I told her I wanted to marry her, take her back to the states. She said she'd be a good wife. She would learn to make hamburgers and make love American. Bear me many children if I wanted. All boys if I wanted (she knew how). She would even return to grade school. So I gave her my high school ring, did it a third time with her on the same day and came back the next. I caught her in the act. Turning a trick with another customer, a Marine. A fucking Marine! Can you believe it? And I was going to marry that bitch. I hope she dies of a quadruple case of gonorrhea on the front steps of a penicillin dispensary.
I'd like to have a few words with George, the hip boilerman. George got out of the navy last week. That's too bad because he knew the lyrics to any rock and roll song you could name. Creme, The Rascals, The Lovin' Spoonful, Jefferson Airplane--George knew all their stuff. He memorized all the words to Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit. George had a Plymouth Barracuda and a girl back home named Sally. He had balls, too. Yeah, he had those aplenty, George did; although you'd never have known it, how soft the guy talked, how relaxed he was in the face of stupid people. George was cool. He was more laid-back than a macrobiotic checkout clerk at a health food store. I could never understand how he stayed so mellow. The guy was unbelievable. Then, one evening on watch, George told me his secret.
"George," I said, "How come is it you're always walking around with a shit-eating grin when I'm feeling so miserable? How come is that?" George smiled, and the easygoing lines ran from the corners of his eyes into his temples.
"Man," he said, "sometimes when I'm in this boiler room with the heat and the noise and the smells, I think, what the hell am I doing in a place like this? Then I just relax and say to myself, It's okay, man. It's okay to be here. Like, if I wasn't supposed to be here, I wouldn't be here. You know what I'm saying? What I'm saying is, I surrender to this place and this time, and then I'm at peace with it, I become one with it. I'm singing, I'm smiling. Then, somebody comes up and says, Hey, man, what the fuck are you smiling about, doing this kind of shitwork? In their view, see, anyone who smiles must not know what he's got himself into. What I'm saying is, this boiler room is innocent. The machinery just does what it has to do, which is make the ship go. And I'm just here to help it do that."
Then, just before I could tell him how bitchin his attitude was, George fished in his pocket and came up with four tabs of 100-microgram acid. He popped two tabs in his mouth and two into mine. "Cheer up, man," he said. "Dig it. Embrace the meltdown."
I'd like to have a few words with George, all right. I'd like to ask him if he knows where I score any more of that 100 microgram acid. I need something to take the edge off of my dark vengeance.
Timothy Martin is employed as a heating and ventilation engineer at Humbolt State University. He is president of Six Rivers Running Club, and has a running column in the Times--Standard in Eureka. He's been published in Road Rider, Easy Rider, True Love, The Racer West, North Coat View, True Story, Running Times, Runner-Triathlete News and a variety of poetry journals.